IN a sensible and timely move, the PML-N government has, at the urging of the opposition, decided to convene a joint session of parliament to discuss the conflict in Yemen.
The focus will also be on what role, if any, Pakistan may play in what is essentially a civil war inside Yemen —– but one that has been turbocharged by Saudi fears of potential Iranian influence growing in a country that the kingdom shares a border with.
While a joint session of parliament cannot issue a binding resolution directing the government on how to proceed in a matter of foreign policy, it should help clarify at least two things: one, the government’s position, thus far at odds with Saudi claims; and two, what is at stake for Pakistan, both internally and externally, when it comes to intervening — diplomatically or militarily — in a region where Pakistan has to necessarily balance competing interests.
To begin with, there has been some consistency in the official claims made by the PML-N government: seeking a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen; declaring that the government’s red line is a violation of the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia (effectively, if the Houthis were to cross the border into the kingdom); and leaving the door open to sending troops at least for defensive purposes inside Saudi Arabia.
What has been particularly troubling, however, is that Saudi officials and the media there have repeatedly contradicted the Pakistani government claims and bluntly stated that Pakistan has already committed to making a military contribution to the Saudi-led coalition presently bombing the Houthis in Yemen that may be followed by a land invasion.
There being a long history of the state here being parsimonious with the truth and making private commitments to outside powers, the fear is that the PML-N government may be saying one thing to its own public and preparing to do something quite different.
In the joint session of parliament to be convened on Monday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself needs to speak, explain his government’s policy and address the conflicting claims made by his government and the Saudi regime.
There is also a significant role for the opposition to play in the joint session: laying out the internal implications of a military involvement in Yemen when the fight against militancy at home is at its peak; expanding on the regional implications for participating in a Saudi-led coalition that is aimed at reducing perceived Iranian influence; and dilating on the proper diplomatic and political role for Pakistan in the Muslim world, which is riven by conflict, both state and non-state.
In particular, refuting the dangerous and destabilising claims in some quarters here that the Yemen conflict is sectarian or that the Pakistan state has a sectarian leaning of its own is something that all of parliament could do together — and forcefully.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2015